WUKAN, China — The Chinese fishing village that went into open revolt against government control last year held elections on Saturday, an event that some local people said was the first time they'd been able to elect their leaders fairly.
Young and old, the villagers who in December erected barricades made of felled trees took a seat on narrow benches and wrote in their choices for village council members. Men previously identified by officials as agitators and criminals watched the ballot boxes being sealed and then carted into school rooms. Under the glare of dozens of news cameras the votes were tallied on large orange posters leaned against the walls outside.
As night fell, the new leader and deputy head of Wukan's committee were announced: Two former protest organizers, who once faced arrest, are now in charge of the village. A remaining five spots will be filled during a runoff election on Sunday.
"Before this year, I had never voted," said 71-year-old Zhang Aizhen, a woman with short white hair and a proud smile.
Although China began to allow village-level balloting in the 1980s, many here said that in the past crooked officials either stage-managed elections or didn't bother to hold them at all.
"In their corruption, they took whatever they wanted," said Xue Jingmian, a 25-year-old security guard who dropped his pink ballot into a steel box. "The villagers only got what was left."
After years of resentment about real estate deals brokered between local leaders and businessmen, which residents said amounted to rampant theft of communal land, villagers staged a series of demonstrations last fall that culminated in a December standoff with police. In an unusual development that gained international attention, both security and government officials got chased out of town before a deal was brokered with provincial officials.
For all of the enthusiasm evident at the plywood polling boxes on Saturday, though, it remained far from clear how the story of Wukan will end up.
One candidate, the daughter of an activist whose death in police custody galvanized villagers in December, said she was visited on Wednesday by an official from the neighboring town of Lufeng and told to pull out of the election.
"He didn't want to force me. He wanted to persuade me," said Xue Jianwan, 22. "He said I should carefully consider the situation and not participate in the election."
Xue said on Friday that she was adamant about staying in the race. Her father's final wish, she said, was that Wukan's land be returned and she intended to push hard until that happened. But when the results were announced on Saturday, putting Xue in the runoff, she was nowhere to be seen, and it wasn't clear whether she was still in the race.
At least one main protest leader on the ballot showed signs of shoring up his position.
In the aftermath of last year's tumult, 66-year-old Lin Zuluan was named Wukan's Communist Party secretary. He still decided to run for the head of the village commission and was successful.
Asked if he thought that was too much concentration of power, the retired businessman replied, "The position of village leader and village party secretary can be held by the same person."
Beyond the inside politics of Wukan, the core dilemma of getting land returned has not yet been solved.
"We will solve the land issue step-by-step," Lin said on Saturday evening, as a crush of reporters followed him away from the polling center at a local school.
If those efforts to reclaim land come up short, then the experience will have been an empty one, many here said.
Saturday marked the third time people in Wukan voted since February. The other times were for an election committee and a large group of village representatives.
"If we still cannot get our land back, then all of this means nothing," said Hong Gui, a 47-year-old taxi driver in dusty khaki pants and grey canvas jacket.
Zhu Qijie, a 25-year-old Wukan native, made the trip home from Guangzhou, a city about 190 miles to the west where he works for a trading company. But he said he wasn't sure what effect the vote will have.
"I have a very cautious attitude about the election. These issues aren't just about Wukan. They concern the entire system in China," said Zhu, who wore a hip cranberry-colored pair of rectangle-framed glasses and black jeans and jacket. "This is not only about land. There are so many other problems. It has to do with the interests of the government and businessmen. We won't get our land back just because we've had an election."
Those broader issues are the subject of much debate among China watchers. Some have suggested that Wukan could serve as a pilot program, a more open way to begin addressing deeply rooted problems of corruption and disputes over land rights. That would parallel the path taken when economic reform was introduced three decades ago — an opening up in specific places like coastal Guangdong province, where Wukan is located, and then managing the spread of that change.
Others argue Wukan's experience is an isolated one that reflects only the back-and-forth social management style of China's authoritarian governance, crushing unrest in some instances and whittling it more gently out of existence in others.
And if the approach is successful in Guangdong, it may not be easily transplanted to other provinces where leadership is seen as more conservative.
Yang Semao, a former protest leader who was elected as Lin's deputy on Saturday, mulled over the question during a conversation with a reporter on Friday afternoon.
"The spirit of Wukan is a model worth being studied by other parts of China," said Yang, 45. "But the model of how we operated cannot be copied because Wukan has its own conditions."
Yang clarified: The officials in Wukan grew so obscenely corrupt, even for a nation used to excesses by local potentates, that most of village's population of some 12,000 people was willing to rise up.
"It would have been too costly for the higher authorities to crack down on all of the villagers," he said.
The man sitting next to him, Xie Yushan, was bludgeoned on the head by police during protests in September.
Yang gestured at Xie and said that "the police were hitting our students ... he went over to save the students and the police beat him for it."
Xie patted the spot on his head where he said that a police baton smashed down.
"I couldn't imagine in September that there would be democratic elections," said Xie, a 50-year-old fish salesman. "Back then, we were all just worried about getting beaten by the police and taken away."
There were reminders on Saturday that such opportunities did not exist in other villages.
Having heard about the polling, Yuan Hanjie showed up in Wukan hoping someone would listen to his story. Officials in his hometown have been illegally selling off land, just like what happened in Wukan, he said.
"In my area, there is no law," said Yuan, 51. "If a person tries to petition, he gets arrested."
A man named Jian Xiangbin gave a similar narrative.
"Every election in my village has been conducted illegally," said Jiang, 46. "It's all done behind the scenes."
Did Wukan give him any hope?
"They have had the first democratic elections to take place in China," he said. "From my point of view, this is the first and only time this has happened."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2012